Directing Democracy

2nd October 2014 Blog

There was much talk of the family conflict caused by the Scottish referendum. The BBC led their 10 o’clock news coverage of the voting by following a No voting father and a Yes voting daughter. There was talk of intimidation, particularly by the Yes camp, although Andrew Marr drew attention to the “terrifying” Orangemen supporting the No camp. In a series of letters well worth a read in the Daily Telegraph (“A lot of us are extremely angry about the frivolous way in which this wretched affair has been set up.”, “My calling for an independent Leicestershire is not the solution.”, “…as a fervent monarchist I take considerable consolation from the fact that our sovereign will remain Queen of Scots…”), Adrian Waller makes a comparison between the referendum and the family breakdown caused by the miners’ strikes. Family conflict, intimidation and breakdown are here thrown together as the immediate result of differences of opinion. Conflict on this reading, is a Bad Thing.

Conflicting opinion also has merit, however, at least from the democratic perspective. The Scottish referendum saw an extraordinary turnout of voters. It also saw high numbers of adults registering to vote, 118,000 of them in the month preceding the referendum alone. Democracy is the real winner in the eyes of John McTernan and Karl-Heinz Lambertz. Equally the democratic process of the “freedom-loving mountain people” of Scotland was followed with interest around the world. Secessionists of various stripes proved an excitable audience. The referendum is “making secession sexy in the West.” The independence debate can therefore be seen as a Good Thing since it showed that voters, young people in particular, are not, after all, politically apathetic.

So conflict divides; but it also stimulates. In his book about solutionism and the Internet, Evgeny Morozov points out that “friction breeds tension, tension creates conflict, and conflict produces change.” Morozov is concerned about the ways in which large companies like Google and Facebook are scouring our profiles to learn about our likes and dislikes and thereby massage the content to which they expose us so that we increasingly inhabit frictionless online spaces in which we never experience the salutary discomfort of opinions different to our own. That may be a serious challenge to a democratic life that requires public spaces in which to deliberate and learn to deliberate. The Scottish referendum offered Scottish people many opportunities to do that, which they evidently much enjoyed.

It’s interesting to consider the different ways in which the Internet and its uses can affect democratic processes. There has been, and continues to be, a fair amount of experimentation with forms of direct democracy. We’ve had Jury Team in the UK, and the Pirate Party in Germany. Neither of these has been particularly successful for a number of reasons. Part of the problem with direct democracy is perhaps that it fails to successfully allow space for deliberation of the kind that stimulated the Scottish electorate. Instead, as the German Pirate Party found, healthy deliberative conflict is reduced to bickering and name-calling and the party ends up decidedly short on content. But as Scottish enthusiasm showed, that’s not reason in itself for no longer trying.

Richard Wilson has something to say about direct democracy and you can watch him saying it here.